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Trump just taught a master class in manipulating language to excuse abuse

The president’s statement on Rob Porter erased his accusers.

US President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office of the White House, February 9, 2018 in Washington, DC.
Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office, February 9, 2018, in Washington, DC.
Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

The latest excuse for assaulting women minimizes the violence so much we can contain it in just one short word: “it.”

Donald Trump lamented on Friday the loss of Rob Porter, who resigned from his powerful post as a staff secretary at the White House this week. Two of Porter’s ex-wives described how he flew into rages during their marriages, bruising and battering them, smashing glass and screaming obscenities.

The FBI spoke to the women and held up Porter’s White House security clearance, a fact that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly knew about well before this week.

Trump’s farewell to Porter — “We wish him well, he worked very hard” — was criticized immediately as a defense of a man whose alleged acts render him indefensible.

But Trump’s statement is even worse than that. It is a master class in how to manipulate language to diminish abusive behavior, dehumanize victims, and let perpetrators off the hook.

Trump uses verbs to credit Porter

Trump knows Porter is a fully capable man who can accomplish verb-driven behavior. Trump rattled off a flattering list Friday:

“He worked very hard,” Trump said of Porter.

“He did a very good job when he was at the White House.”

“He’s also very sad now.”

“He also, as you know, says he’s innocent.”

“He said very strongly yesterday that he’s innocent.”

“...He’s innocent.”

Trump’s verbs aren’t the most complex — did, says, is — but they are active. They bring Porter to life and give him credit for his achievements. He did a good job. He feels pain (he’s very sad right now, after all). And, most importantly, he says he is innocent.

The verbs disappear when it’s time to take responsibility

But Trump drops the verbs when he should actually use them. Instead of describing any accusations against Porter, any description of what Porter might have done, what the FBI did or found, we get one tiny, flat, immobile word: “it.”

“We found out about it recently and I was surprised by it, but we certainly wish him well and it’s a tough time for him.”

“But it was very sad when we heard about it, and certainly he’s also very sad now.”

In Trump’s construction, he uses “it” instead of a number of verbs. The small, ambiguous noun can’t do the work.

“It” does not describe “punched his wife.”

“It” does not describe “bruised her arm.”

“It” does not describe “smashed glass.”

“It” does not describe “yelled obscenities.”

It is benign. It requires no apology, no accountability, and no responsibility. It omits the actor. And it pretends the victim never existed. The result is that a predator is held up and the accusers are erased.

Suddenly, the other men in this story no longer seem to be capable of verb-driven behavior either. “It” gives cover to their actions or inactions over the past year. “It” avoids verbs like “knew”: Don McGahn knew a year ago. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly knew as early as November 2017. Even the previous chief of staff, Reince Priebus, knew. “It” replaces verbs like “did”: None of them did anything.

“It” shows that Trump understands the power of #MeToo

Our cultural reckoning around sexual harassment and assault erupted when the media exposed Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual assault, ending a culture of silence that protected Weinstein for decades.

Women since have taken down a long list of powerful men. Some of those men lost their jobs. The police are investigating others. In each case, the takedown started with a voice. When victims assign language to actions, when the public hears the story and authorities look into them, they set change in motion. (There are many cultural and structural barriers to ending sexual harassment and abuse, but silence is one of the most important.)

Porter learned the power of victims’ voices this week. Once the public heard his wives’ stories or saw the photograph of their bruises, he was done.

Trump’s attempt to help Porter on Friday shows he understands the root of #MeToo’s power. When victims speak, when they take action, when they force us to see, the power of predators fades away. The best Trump could do for Porter was to take away his victims’ humanity, their active descriptions, and replace it all with just one word: “it.”

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